Gay rights movement enters critical period

Decisions: This year will likely see a number of rulings, by courts and voters, that will determine the future of key homosexual issues.

March 05, 2000|By Steve Sanders

THE YEAR 2000 has emerged as the most critical period in the history of the gay rights movement. During the next eight months, state legislators, the U.S. Supreme Court and voters will determine in important ways how gay and lesbian relationships are recognized, how effectively civil rights laws can be used to promote homosexual equality, and which side is ascendant in the culture war over America's most controversial minority.

Tuesday, California voters will decide a bitterly contested ballot initiative on whether that state should recognize something so cutting-edge that it's not yet legal: marriage between members of the same sex. Also, legislators in Vermont are struggling with an order from that state's high court to grant gay couples the same rights as married heterosexuals.

On April 29 and 30, tens of thousands of gays, family members and allies are expected to take part in the "Millennium March on Washington," a weekend of speeches, performances and prayers for gay and lesbian equality. This summer, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on only the third major gay-related case in its history, deciding whether state civil rights laws trump the Boy Scouts' policy against gay members and leaders.

Finally, in November, voters' decisions on who controls the White House and Congress might decide the fate of a proposed national nondiscrimination law, the future of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the tone on gay debates set by the nation's elected leaders.

These battles loom, as gays are enjoying steady gains in public acceptance and political influence.

A new review of public opinion by political scientists Kenneth Sherrill and Alan Yang, titled "From Outlaws to In-Laws: Anti-Gay Attitudes Thaw," shows that while 56 percent of Americans believe homosexual behavior is "morally wrong," larger majorities support equal job opportunities and laws against hate crimes.

Opposition to gay equality in areas such as housing, insurance and inheritance rights, and adoption has eroded significantly during the past two decades. Moreover, at a time when gays are coming out as never before -- in private, in public and on TV -- polls show support for equality increases dramatically when people say they have at least one gay friend, family member or co-worker. But deep divisions over homosexuality remain, and nowhere more starkly than in California, where voters in the nation's largest state will decide this week whether to approve a law saying "only a marriage between a man and a woman shall be valid or recognized."

The issue is moot: No state gives marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But the multimillion-dollar media war over the so-called "Knight initiative" (named for its sponsor, Republican state Sen. William "Pete" Knight) has come to symbolize emotional, political and religious differences over how society should treat its gay citizens. As if to underscore the issue's ability to polarize, Knight's son David revealed last fall that he is gay and estranged from his father.

While gay marriage remains theoretical, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in December that limiting the benefits of marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the "common benefits clause" of that state's constitution -- an unprecedented victory in the quixotic campaign to legally recognize gay relationships.

Declaring gay couples' quest for protection and security nothing less than "a recognition of our common humanity," the court tossed a political hot potato to the state legislature, which must decide this spring whether to grant marriage licenses to gay couples or erect an elaborate system of "domestic partnership."

Domestic partnership would provide gay couples the same state-conferred privileges -- such as the ability to make medical decisions for partners or inherit property in the absence of a will -- that married people get, while withholding the "m" word and the social recognition it implies.

Legislative leaders have signaled they intend to focus on domestic partnership rather than on expanding marriage. Unlike marriage, however, domestic partnership would not be recognized across state lines. Gays say it might represent a return to the "separate but equal" status the nation's legal system long ago rejected for blacks and other minorities.

While Vermont deliberates, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on another flash-point issue: whether a New Jersey civil rights law can be used to prohibit Boy Scout groups from enforcing policies that exclude gays.

The Scouts expelled James Dale as an assistant scoutmaster after learning he was involved with a gay student group at Rutgers University. In August, New Jersey's highest court ruled the Boy Scouts were covered by a state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Scouts have argued they have a special right to discriminate, because they are a private membership organization.

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